In any analysis of the American tradition the theme of constitutional government is a central feature. Although no one would argue today that the history of the United States from colonial times to the present can be wholly understood in terms of its constitutional record, few would deny that a study of the evolution of our constitutional system gets as close to the mainstream of American development as any single historical approach. The mighty torrent of constitutional history is a blending of the troubled waters of political turmoil, the steady current of economic change, the swirling eddys of social tension, and the allegedly Placid pools of intellectual ferment. To integrate constitutional evolution with these aspects of America's democratic development, therefore, we have stressed materials of broad historical significance above those of purely legal importance.
A study of the role of the Constitution in American society must deal not only with the shaping and interpretation of that historic document, but also with it as symbol and instrument. Today it is venerated for its age, its success, and its source of authority. Now the oldest written constitution in the world, it has survived the tumultuous twists that have characterized human affairs in America; one hundred and seventy years old in 1957, it remains a vital instrument of government.
There is no doubt that the American doctrine of a written constitution owes much to English and European theorists, but it owes much more to colonial experience. James Madison, the "Father of the Constitution," observed during its formative period that although Americans had "paid a decent regard to the opinions of former times and other nations," they had not allowed "a blind veneration for antiquity, for custom, or for names, to overrule the suggestions of their own good sense, the knowledge of their own situations, and the lessons of their own experience." Although space limitations are partly responsible, it is chiefly the pragmatic nature of American constitutionalism and culture--the concentration on experience rather than logic, on practice rather than theory--which explains our emphasis on practical problems throughout the book.
From the standpoint of the history of ideas, it is probably true that few, if any, of the "self-evident" principles of the American Revolution, and perhaps of the American experience, were wholly new. The basic concept of popular government, which has since evolved into democracy; the principle of equality; the doctrine of limited government; the principle of federalism--all these had long histories as concepts. The peculiar contribution of the Founding Fathers was that they translated theory into practice, actualizing the doctrines by putting them to the acid test of experience in what Carl Becker has called "an experiment in democracy." Starting with the fundamental proposition of popular sovereignty-that government rests on the consent of the governed--they institutionalized this revo-